It is precisely the word “listening”, the one that defines what quality music is. The rhythmic, melodic and harmonic complexity of quality music requires active listening in order to be appreciated. Learning how to really listen, so important in human relations, is just one of the many benefits derived from developing a good musical taste.
“Even though we often talk about a good ear for music, we must really talk about a good mind for music, a mind that can listen simultaneously to melodies, rhythms and harmonies. A mind with a poor musical training listen only to the most simplest relations in music.” Robert Jourdain, Music, the brain and ecstasy
Most popular music, due to its simplicity in all the musical elements, does not requires active listening. People acquire the taste for this kind of music for different reasons. Early exposition to certain kinds of music creates affinities to the characteristics of that musical form. “Erin Hannon and Sandra Trehub has found that six months infants can detect all kind of rhythmic variations but at twelve months, that capacity narrows. From that moment on they detect more easily those rhythms they has been exposed to." Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks “Due to lack of exposure to quality music, most people are unaware of the limitations of the music they listen to. Their ears find so little sense in more complex music, they only can conclude their music is superior.” Robert Jourdain, Music, the brain and ecstasy
To analize the benefits of quality music it is necessary to discuss about its basic elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, tone) and how these elements are processed by the brain. Each element has specific effects and benefits. The quality of the music depends on the effective use of these elements. Of all musical elements, rhythm is probably the most basic and the first one people develop. Rhythm is usually associated with dance, an important activity in socialization and with additional physical benefits. However this does not means all danceable music has the same quality and benefits. Dance music like salsa, Cuban rhythms, samba, contains a rhythm complexity (polyrhythms) that requires more attention from the mind.
Other kinds of dance music, especially those created by computers (techno, reggaeton, rap, and some r&b) does not contain the rhythmic complexity to keep the brain’s attention. When listening to this kind of music, something called habituation occurs in the brain. When the neurons received a repetitive stimulus with no variations, the mind simply disconnect, the neurons stop responding to the stimulus. People keep receiving the sounds but are no longer listening actively. This kind of music provokes anxiety in people accostumed to more rhythmic variations.
A similar habituation occurs when listening to melody. Simple and repetitive melodies, like those in most popular music, are easily processed and have the same disconnection effect in the brain. More complex and interesting melodies provides the brain more substance to process. The vast melodic variety of musical forms like jazz and classical music does not allow the neurons to habituate, the attention to appreciate this kind of music must be constant. People accostumed to listening to simple melodies can not find sense in this kind of music. Is like asking a person who can not perceive colors to appreciate a Monet painting.
Thematic development can only be comprehend by those possessed of a good ear for harmony, and a musical memory strong enough to hang on to fragments over many bars until they meet all related elements. Without these skills, the brain fails to perceive extended melodic relations. And so we often hear the complaint that classical music (or jazz) has no melody" Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain Melody is an element developed early in life. And most of the neuron involve in the process of language are used to process melodies. An interesting fact is that some people tends to develop taste for more complex music and melodies as they educate themselves and matured. Cases of acquisition of taste for simple melodies as education increase are hard to be found.
The complexity of melodies can be analyzed in terms of information content. “Studies has been done to quantify the information content for different musical forms. The melodies in most popular music registered low scores.” Robert Jourdain
Harmony is created when two or more notes are played at the same time. Harmony is a more complex element and is developed later in life. "Harmonically simple music that revolves around a few chords all in the same key sounds flat to those accustomed to journeying deep into tonal hierarchies" Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain "Harmony is inherently complex, inherently intellectual, inherently difficult. It is the last aspect of musicality to mature in the young, and tests show that many people never achieve harmonic sophistication. Not surprisingly, harmonic depth is rare in popular music." Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain
The benefits of listening to complex harmonies seem to concentrate in the math development. Recent studies establish a relation between music and intellect, especially with rational and math intelligence. “We know that parts of the brain are capable of identify music notes like Do and Mi, but still we do not know how the brain perceived that interval as a Mayor Third. These relations must be calculated by computing processes in the brain that w estil do not comprehend. Neuroimage studies by Robert Zatorre seems to suggest that the brain calculate melodic and rhythmic intervals.” Daniel J. Levitin, This is your Brain on Music
Tone is the sound quality of the different instruments used in music. Each musical instrument has a distinctive sound. When an instrument generates a sound, it really produce multiples and simultaneous vibrations. There is evidence that the brain respond to each of these vibration simultaneously.
One of the benefits of listening to quality music is that this music is created with real instruments instead of drum machines, computers, sampling or pre recorded instruments. These methods does not provide the same tonal richness as a real instrument.
Music elements like tone, melody and harmony are processed by the right side of the brain, but as the mind is educated musically, more complex patterns are developed. Such complexity requires an increase of the use of the left side of the brain (the logic side). Complex musical compositions required of the sequential talents of the left side.
"The frontal portion of the corpus callosum (the part that connects the brain hemispheres) is significantly larger in musicians, especially those who started their musical training early in life. Musicians also show more growth of the cerebellum and gray matter, the part responsible of processing information." Daniel J. Levitin, This is your Brain on Music
Listening to quality music is at the same time an emotional and intellectual activity. Quality music can develop the sensibility and intellect, the effective communication and reasoning. All of these are important elements in a society that seems to worship superficiality and mediocrity.